North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Ghost in the machine

leave a comment »

In writing up this post I have to mention that I am very impressed with the quality of discussion that one finds on blogs. This truly is a remarkable medium. Thanks go to all three of the bloggers mentioned here for providing such good reading and thinking for the rest of us to try and learn from. I have not had a chance to read all of the entries linked to here, but I do intend to.


George Will compares two views of man in his latest column. One is novelist Ian McEwan, who places the following words into the mouth of the leading character in his latest novel, Saturday:

Endless and beautiful forms of life, such as you see in a common hedgerow, including exulted beings like ourselves, arose from physical laws, from war or nature, famine and death. This is the grandeur. And a bracing kind of consolation in the brief privilege of consciousness.

This character is a neurosurgeon. The quote reminds me that there may be some truth to the observation that those in the biological and medical sciences are often on reductionist side of the issue. I’m not sure why this is, and it is an interesting question as well.

Will then tries to imagine how John Paul II might have responded:

a bemused John Paul II, no stranger to materialism, dialectical and otherwise, might have responded: There you go again—that word “consciousness.” What is the grandeur in the spectacle, however interesting, of the blind, brute, violent necessity of physical laws at work? Is consciousness of an existence supposedly governed by such laws really much of a privilege?

Will also mentions that the difference in these views has a long history in philosophy. The recent passing of John Paul and of Terri Schaivo has brought all of these issues to public attention and the debate is still making its way around the blogosphere. Here is a quick look.

At Sirius, Brandon has written three posts defending the notion that humans are more than rational thinking beings, and I find myself inclined to his view. He observes that our views of personhood are undergoing re-evaluation at the moment. His posts are here, here and here. In his latest effort, he notes that some people are clamoring to have animals recognized as people and others are arguing that some people are not people. He observes:

The higher-brain death view… appears to do no real rational work: it furthers no general principle, simplifies no process of reasoning, clarifies no actual situation. In fact, over a particular area it complicates and obscures everything. Overcoming this requires a type of rational inquiry in which most of its proponents show no interest whatsoever. It exhibits no marks that by taking it seriously we might become more just, more compassionate, or more responsible than we currently can be. In light of all this, I would need to see an excellent rational justification for it before I could in good conscience regard it as anything other than what it seems to me on the surface to be: rationally dubious and potentially dangerous gerrymandering.

It’s interesting and puzzling to me that those seeking to narrow the scope of what is human (“life worthy or life”) are often of the liberal camp. They are often the same people who want to expand the rights available to people (who “really are” people). There seems to be a disjunction here.

Taking the side of McEwan’s doctor in this debate is a very capable blogger named Chris. At his blog, Mixing Memory, he writes:

An individual human person is differentiated from other human individuals, as well as nonhuman individuals, by a collection of memories, beliefs, knowledge, skills, and tendencies. In other words, what defines an individual person is a history.

My reason for requiring the possibility of higher-brain functioning is this: I believe that to define personhood as the basic functioning of the organism (e.g., breathing, digestion, blood circulation, etc.), or as anything less than the existence of a neurally-realized history, a set of physical properties of the higher-brain that differentiate and define individuals, is harmful to the dignity of human individuals. It results in the view that all of the things that make us different from one another — all that makes us who we are — is superfluous, merely icing on the cake of undifferentiated vital functioning. But ultimately, who we are, what we are, as persons, is more than just breathing, circulation, and digestion; it is a history that is recorded in the configurations of our higher-brain structures. When those are gone, we are not persons; we are merely bodies with life, but no lives.

Isn’t that interesting? Both views are advanced as protecting human dignity.

My own response, as longtime readers will know, is that perspective here is absolutely crucial. To accept Chris’ view would require me to accept that it is possible for us, for mankind, to know – to definitively know – what humanity is and therefore to know absolutely what human dignity is. We do know all kinds of things about our bodies, but Chris himself admits that our answers to a question like this cannot be derived from facts alone (“this is a question that medicine and science cannot answer for us. This means that we have to come up with definitions which, while they may be based on empirical facts, also include interpretations of those facts that are not strictly scientific.”). In the absence of that knowledge I am inclined to err on what I see as the side of caution.

I see very grave risks in granting to ourselves the power to decide when others possess “life without dignity.” It conjures up a horrific image of murder and even genocide being advanced under the banner of human “dignity.” That word is too small and too vague to carry that weight. It’s like trying to define “art”; in the end we are forced to admit we know it when we see it and nothing more. At best we can say what we ourselves think that dignity is right now. We can’t truly say we know what we will think in the future, in another circumstance. Just today I saw a man who lost his left hand at the wrist at work and marvelled at how he was able to compensate for it. I can’t imagine doing it myself, now, but I can’t say what the future holds. If you follow pro life web sites you know that it is not that unusual to find stories of babies who were aborted for something as inconsequential as a cleft lip, a condition that is fully treatable. Yet the parents found a way to call that “life without dignity.”

Moving from the first person perspective (and all of the problems associated with it) we have our troubles magnified considerably when we try look on another (third person view) and try to decide if they have dignity or not. This is no easy question in the first person, and in the third it is all but impossible. We do not have access to another’s mind. This is true of everyone, not just the mentally disabled. Is dignity something one has or has not, or is it something we can have in degrees? I tend to think we should not place ourselves in the position of making that judgement on another. Dignity is bestowed on us by God and it is not for us to judge it or to question it.

Shulamite, who writes at Vomit the Lukewarm, takes another tack, but also comes down in disagreement with Chris. Shulamite takes issue with Chris’ use of the word ‘person’:

This account of “person” is fine, but the primary definition of person does just as much to differentiate one human from another, and at the same time from all nonhuman animals. What could be more self -evident than “an individual human being” is both “this individual and not that one” and that they are “a human being” as opposed to being a nonhuman animal? Mixing Memory is using an analogous sense of the word person, and seeking to distinguish it from the first sense of the term. His first principle assumes that some human individuals are not persons. This happens because he has already defined a person as something like “a being with a history” or “a being with an awareness of history”.

He thinks Chris is using a secondary sense of the word ‘person’ and turning it against the primary. It is an interesting line of attack and not one that I had considered previously.


Written by Curt

April 9, 2005 at 12:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: